Why do I do this to myself?
Leaning against a big oak, I surveyed this particular unsavory scene from under my hood.
Packless and other vagrants milled about a sad excuse for a market. Tilted booths and buckling tables, with tattered rags overhead flapping in the breeze. Shoddy wares were spread thin on thin blankets. Hoarse voices hawked them for ten times their worth.
A thick scent of wood smoke, meat, and mud clogged the air, along with other scents I didn’t want to consider. This crowd was unkempt to say the least, in various states of grime and squalor, all taking a vicious pleasure in their own filth. Happy to lurch along the narrow alleys, slurping beer and turkey legs, starting fights, talking too loudly, and littering.
A hard, irritated breath caught in my chest, and my fists clenched. In my mind, a quick scenario flashed out. I pushed back my hood, stepped forward, and glanced around. I was taller and broader than nearly every fool here; the few who’d already noticed me would take immediate note. They’d fall quiet and squint, a little uncertain at first. Then they’d freeze. They’d have recognized me.
The Ice Bear of the Northbane wasn’t in the North.
No, instead of overseeing the peaceful shifter sanctuary of Winfyre Ridge, helping the other Northern Wild packs keep the territories secure and causing our enemies untold dread—I was here.
Here, in this strange, secreted-away sliver of no man's land, hidden within the Delvik Hills. A place that shouldn’t have existed, never mind be filled with a teeming mass this size.
In my mind, I saw the whole crowd slowly falling silent as word spread. Once their brains had accepted that a Northbane Alpha was indeed here, I wouldn’t need to lift a finger. They’d turn tail and run. Leaving this place, never to return. I almost smiled, because it was almost worth it.
Of course, big bad reputation or not, doing something so reckless would require cleanup. At the moment, that was the only thing staying my hand. Although it wasn’t like I had anything better to do. I also didn’t have any real reason to be here in the Hills.
The closest territory wasn’t even mine; it was the Greyclaw’s. My lips twisted at the irony. Only this morning, Hamlet Norson, one of the Greyclaw Wolf Alphas, had told me to let him know about any border issues. That they’d handle it.
Handle it, my ass. I’d seen how the Greyclaw handled it. Missing roughly a couple hundred vagrants, maybe thirty miles from their border. A hollowed-out wildlife refuge between the borders of the Greyclaw and the Northbane, nothing but wild and thick woods that belonged to no pack. That didn’t mean it was necessarily safe or didn’t warrant being checked out.
Damn arrogant of those wolves. The kind of arrogance that bit you in the tail, and I would know. Over the last week, I’d been helping the Greyclaws follow up on a rumor of Rotted in the Kirev Pass, a river run east of here. A rumor that we’d proved unequivocally false and that had tried my patience in ways Tristan Llary hadn’t.
I mean, sure, this area was hard to get to, but I’d found it, and I hadn’t even been looking for it.
Not at first.
Roughly about three hours ago, I’d been trekking back toward the North when I’d spotted several sets of trails snaking west. After that uneventful trip, who could blame me for being bored and curious enough to follow some suspicious footprints I spotted? Hm. Maybe this little side jaunt wasn’t just to crack some packless skulls together, but to make up for the mind-numbing boredom of mucking through riverbeds with the insufferable Greyclaws.
Either way, there was no way in hell I was letting ’em “handle” it.
Usually, I wasn’t one for diversions, but I’d been itching with restlessness and irritation lately. It had been too quiet in the Northern Wilds of late. Not an Excris to be found within a thousand miles of a territory these days. Those hellish creatures, which seemed intent on even further tearing apart the reality we’d known, had also been a nice distraction in some ways. With the Excris demons running amok across the territories, there hadn’t been time for personal ones to catch up.
Of course, there were still the occasional sightings. But no territory had been breached in over two years. Even the borders between the territories and the Tiselk were relatively safe—if you didn’t mind Slinkers, smugglers, and the rest of the Tiselkians. At least Tiselkians, if packless, were clannish about their lands. Packless, on the other hand, had no home and no honor.
Besides the occasional annoyance with the packless, it seemed as though the post-Rift dust had finally settled. The territories were prosperous, and Winfyre Ridge was no longer a rough little outpost of refugees. It was filled with content shifters who had their pick of creature comforts.
Maybe this wasn’t the world before the cataclysm had split apart our collective past, but it was more than anyone would have expected, I think, just under six years after the Rift. While that was a welcome change, it was also a strange one, and I couldn’t seem to shake being in survival mode.
Or maybe I was still holding on too tightly to the past. Something Reagan Swiftlore had passed on from Olenna Drake of the Winfyre Coven popped into my head.
With each passing year, the old world will dissolve more and more. They’ll be fantastical stories for our children, whimsy for our grandchildren, and legends for the future generations. Until, one day, we’re myths, and then, maybe the world restarts.
Olenna had been right. The post-Rift world slowly sapped away not only names and technologies, but memories, too. I found myself drawing a blank about certain things in the past—little things like what my street growing up had looked like. Or stupid things, like school classrooms and shopping malls. Most people didn’t seem to care. Deep down, I knew I shouldn’t.
Even though there was no going back, though, I was dragging my feet about going forward. I found myself reluctant to make plans or think too far ahead. It seemed like tempting fate. At the same time, too, I feared losing certain memories. Certain faces.
A gong rang out, interrupting my nostalgic nosedive, and I shook myself. Lately, with too much time on my hands, I kept inching towards dark wells of the past that shouldn’t be disturbed.
Ahead of me, the crowd was streaming out of the market and across a wide field toward a rough-hewn construction of wood and red cloth. Nearly twelve feet off the ground, the platform was a stark blot on the landscape, visible from every corner of the market. It had drawn my notice immediately when I’d arrived earlier. No surprise at all it now drew in the crowd. Like flies buzzing about rotted meat, bodies packed in close to the platform, and every hood tilted up.
Though I had no proof, my gut told me it was a black-market auction.
Lagging a little behind, the picture of ease, my eyes darted everywhere as my mind worked. Why else would a bunch of degenerates be hanging out in an abandoned corner of the Delvik Hills? In fact, it was irritatingly clever of these criminals to swap Excris contraband here. The Greyclaw were vain enough to imagine their presence alone would deter them.
Well, maybe we of the Northbane could imagine it, too. We had a reputation after all the shit that had gone down after the Rift. Yet even the vainest among us knew that reputation wasn’t always enough. Besides, I wasn’t one to hold my breath, even if there were no Excris around.
If anything, I’d proved today you could still find trouble without looking too hard.
Folding my arms, towering at least a good half-foot over everyone else in the crowd, I shook my head. At the same time, though, this was laughable compared to the hell right after the Rift. Practically a jaunt, except for one thing…
For the first time in a long time, something was tugging at my gut.
A deep, untapped shifter instinct. One that had led me here. And that now, with every step, filled me with a bone-deep unease. I could sense the wrongness all around me, smell it in the foul sharpness of the murky air, and hear it in the ravenous hum from the crowd.
Finding a spot in a less-crowded area, I had a decent view from the vantage of a small hillock. Wouldn’t make for easy running or fighting, though, if it came to that. Tall, old trees hemmed in this area, the ground thick with leaves and muck. The air and light had a funny quality, turning even the bright autumn leaves pallid. My unease deepened. Drumming my fingers on my arm, I wished these criminals would hurry up.
Looking around, it struck me that if any of my pack brothers or Northbane shifters had pulled a stunt like this, I’d have smoked the hell out of them. Double patrol duty, laps, latrines. No one was supposed to go haring off on their own. We’d seen what had happened with Tristan.
Well, if no one knows, I’m not technically breaking any rules or making a mistake.
The crowd was all men, and that, too, struck me as odd. If there were women, they appeared to be working for whoever ran this little show.
Made me almost wish my cousin Fallon were here. Let the head of the Vixens tear this place apart. But she’d been spending time with our family, relaxing and having a life in Winfyre.
Something I should be doing.
I just didn’t know how. Or if I could.
“Gents, welcome,” a ragged voice barked above the crowd. Seemed all the buyers were men. “Nice of you to join us. I promise it’ll be worth your time.”
This master of ceremonies was no fool. With a hat pulled low over his brow, a thick beard, and indiscriminate clothing, it was hard to make out his face. Never mind his age or any other identifying features. Middling height, stoop-shouldered, and limping a little.
At that moment, my hackles went up. A cluster of shifters, similarly arrayed in cloaks and heavy boots, were staring me down. More than one hostile gaze pierced me. Silently, I cursed. Something was telling me to wait before I made a move, to assess and figure out just what was worth the crowd’s time. Especially if it was Excris contraband…
But if these guards, for lack of a better word, made a move, I’d have to give myself away.
Snorting softly, I wondered why I’d even bothered with the nondescript gear that packless and criminals favored. My favorite jacket was stashed in my bag a mile or so away, while I was wearing one of the stupid cloaks that they all favored. At least the hood was convenient.
Weighing my options, I took a small risk and met the gaze of the guards. Smirking a little, I gave them a nod and relaxed my shoulders. Sometimes it was better to play along than play dumb. As luck would have it, a few nodded in return, and those eyes slid elsewhere.
Safe for now. Still, I’d have to be prudent about every move from here on out. Not like I was Tristan or Luke, though. I never lost my head. I’d plan everything down to the last—
Who is that?
The bone-deep hum of instincts went from a murmur to a howl. Thought collapsed as it clawed at my chest and worked its way up my throat, the purest agony and rage I’d felt in years.
Yet all I could do was stare at her.
Stare as she was dragged up on stage and shoved to the front of the platform. Her hands were bound in front of her, and there was a hood over her head. The men in the crowd began to whistle and catcall, some already calling out prices.
Breath catching hard in my chest, my fists knotted and spine stiffened. An ugly wrench went through my gut as the bastard who’d dragged the woman up grabbed her shoulders and hissed something at her, then ripped off the hood.
A visceral shock went through me. It was as though I’d felt it, that slap of light and sound.
But that wasn’t what did me in. It was her face. I’d never seen her before, yet I recognized her. Something about her face was as familiar as my own. Or was it just that I wanted it to be?
Burnished, honey-gold curls fell in a thick wave around a round face with wide cheekbones and a wrinkled nose. When her eyes opened, it was like a blow to the chest. I had to grip a tree branch to steady myself. Still dazed, I watched as the bright brown orbs adjusted to the light and took in the crowd. Those full lips formed around an “oh.”
Protectiveness and possessiveness surged through me, as well as annoyance. Oh? I wanted to yell. I think this is worth more than a goddamn oh if you’ve gotten yourself—
The branch cracked in my grip, and a few heads swiveled around. Clearing my throat, I straightened and stepped away, watching as she was dragged even closer to the edge. The man’s movements triggered something in my brain, and a dull thud of horror went through me. I’d been so distracted by the woman, I hadn’t realized that I knew this bastard.
The cockroach. A lifetime ago, we’d served our country together. Before he’d given in to his baser instincts, gotten dishonorably discharged, and gone to hell. After the Rift, he’d found use for his talents with the Stasis Bureau. Or had he been a Skror? The former had been government-backed, created in the interest of public safety, and the other had been a ragtag group of angry fools. Did it matter, though? In the end, the goal was the same. To hunt down, corral, and experiment on shifters.
To me, they were all monsters—worse, sometimes, than the Excris.
Gritting my teeth, I watched as Sarrow gripped the woman’s arm and snarled at her. My blood roared to life, and the rage in my chest intensified, pulsing with every beat of my heart.
Her initial, amused befuddlement was falling away. Now I saw a woman desperately trying to hide how afraid she was and lifting her chin to meet Sarrow’s gaze. An absurd flicker of pride went through me. Then I noticed she was also surreptitiously glancing around the stage.
“What are you doing?” I muttered.
Sarrow’s madman grin forced my gaze back to him. He elbowed the announcer out of the way and dangled the woman over the lip of the stage. I started forward and stopped, trying to breathe. A few members of the crowd reached for her, and Sarrow swung her back. Laughing.
Today, I might have to kill him.
"'Lo, boys, here’s today’s special," Sarrow called out. He looked far worse than the last time I’d seen him, and he’d looked bad then—a man scraped clean of salvation. “Meet Iris.” There were howls and catcalls. "Little Goldilocked witch who got in over her head. Worked out for us, though, eh?”
Witch, I thought. Must be Riftborn.
Not everyone had been affected by the Rift’s upheaval of energy in the same way. Some, like me and my pack, had become shifters. Others had had strange gifts woken up in their blood, anything from healing to calling on the elements to amplifying others’ abilities.
Iris made a face at the word “witch,” but then her eyes gleamed as Sarrow held up a book. I squinted at it, and my stomach dropped with this new, fresh horror.
Orion’s lost book.
“Look what the witch dragged in,” Sarrow yelled, and there was excited babble from the crowd. “And guess what? Today we’re having a two-for-one.”
He glared at the woman, who glared right back, although her eyes kept darting to the book. That’s why she was up there. Was she insane? Either way, somehow this little Riftborn had gotten herself into this mess because of that damned book.
“Lads, offer up your bids for Orion’s research,” Sarrow said with a sneering grin. “And the lovely Iris.” What little calm I had left began to splinter. “The translator and the tome. Good thing she’s not too hard on the eyes.” The crowd babbled and frothed with excitement. Meanwhile, Iris’s whole body seemed to jump with shock, and she tried to pull away, real terror in her eyes. It was all I could see, and, for a moment, I thought I was going to be sick. Sarrow’s next words cut like a blade to the brain and woke me up. “Do what you want with her, boys…”
“Go to hell,” Iris said loudly and tried to stomp on his feet. The crowd surged with amusement, and bids began to ring out. “Stupid, jackass cretin—!” Her words were choked off.
“Do that again, and I’ll end you, girl.” Sarrow had her by the neck. Then he threw her down, and Iris let out a cry of pain. “Now, let’s hear those bids—”
Sarrow heard only one bid.
My growl cut through the air, reverberating so loudly that people grabbed their ears and fell to the ground. Sarrow’s face went whiter than my fur. And I proceeded to destroy his auction.